Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

IBM Brings Supercomputing Muscle to U.S. Lab

It was just a few weeks ago that President Obama was kvetching in his State of the Union address that China “has the fastest computer.” He was referring to the Tianhe-1A system at the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin. With a peak performance of 2.57 petaflops, it muscled out the U.S. Department of Energy’s Cray XT5 Jaguar system for the No. 1 spot on the Top 500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

Worry no more, Mr. President. Your government is on the case. The U.S. Department of Energy announced today that it has cut a deal with IBM to bring a 10-petaflop supercomputer, named “Mira,” to the Argonne National Lab in Illinois.

Mira is a Blue Gene/Q and it will be up and running in 2012. It’s 20 times faster than the current system in use at Argonne, named Intrepid, which can do 557 teraflops–or 557 trillion calculations–a second, and as recently as 2008 ranked as the third most powerful computer in the world.

Meanwhile, another even more powerful computer, also an IBM Blue Gene Q, is going to Lawrence Livermore Labs next year. This one will be a 20-petaflop monster named “Sequoia.” And there’s more where that came from. These “petascale” computers are helping scientists get their heads around the idea of “exascale” computers that would be faster yet by a factor of a thousand, performing quintillions of calculations per second. (I think a quintillion is 1 followed by 18 zeroes.)

What can you do with 10 or 20 petaflops? Meteorologists could predict local weather down to the 100-meter range with a 20-petaflop system. And running a simulation of how a beating human heart reacts to new medicine, which takes two years of computing time today, will get done in two days on a 10-petaflop system.

Take that, China.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik